Following Back Injury Settlements, Some Workers Experience Escalating Life Disruptions

Workers who reach settlements for their work-related back injuries don’t necessarily experience physical, emotional or financial relief. According to a new study, these workers often endure escalating financial and domestic difficulties after they settle their claims.

The study, completed by researchers at Saint Louis University, found that workers who are low-income, African-American or younger than 35 (or all of the above) are most likely to experience financial and domestic problems after settling for their painful occupational back injuries.

"Regardless of the settlement that you receive, if you continue to experience pain, our findings indicate you will often get worse over time – worse in ways that can lead to the loss of a home, lead to family disruptions and even lead to divorce,” said Raymond Tait, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry at Saint Louis University School of Medicine and lead author of the research that appeared in the August issue of Spine.

Along with his colleague, John Chibnall, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry at Saint Louis University, Tait analyzed court records of 1,475 African-Americans and non-Hispanic whites who settled workers’ compensation claims in Missouri. Their research focused on 10 years of court records – spanning 5 years before claim settlements and 5 years after – to study the impact of claim settlement on major life disruptions that included breach of contract, child support, adult abuse, stalking, divorce, foreclosure and eviction.

The researchers found that members of all groups they studied were involved with significantly more financial and domestic court actions after their settlements than before.

“These kinds of judicial activities are not trivial,” Tait said, “but reflect substantial problems in order to find their way into court. Consequently, each incident represents a significant stressor that the worker encountered.”

Race and Age

African-Americans experienced more long-term financial and domestic duress than non-Hispanic whites, Tait said. Not only did they face disproportionate increases in financial difficulties, but those difficulties escalated over time. African-Americans received less treatment and had poorer outcomes than non-Hispanic whites.

Workers younger than 35 also experienced significantly more financial problems than those who were middle-aged and older. Younger workers had three times more financial legal actions than those between 35 and 55, and five times more than those older than age 55. Tait pointed out that these findings indicate lost productivity and lower age-earning capacity for these younger workers, which could result in “considerable” long-term costs to society.

“Taken together, the pattern of results raises ethical, medical and legal questions regarding the social justice implications of the current workers’ compensation processes,” Tait said. “The current mechanisms that inform the administration of workers’ compensation systems clearly merit further attention.”

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